The last night I spent in the tower I barely slept at all. All I could hear wereGustaf ’s snores reverberating off the stone walls and my own thoughts that echoed in my head.He had gone downstairs and stretched out before the fireplace shortly after I had said that Iwould go with him to see his village, leaving me to flop on my bed and try to justify having saidyes. Gustaf Schreiber had come into my life so suddenly and after knowing each otherfor no more than ten minutes he began calling into question everything I knew about my life. Itwas his word against my mother’s. Had I really been locked away from the world to protect me,as she had explained many times, from war and strife? Or had it all been a lie as he had insisted?
But with the dawn came my courage and, having decided that I had to find out thetruth for myself, I soon found myself standing at my wardrobe and being instructed to donnearly every single piece of clothing that I owned. “It’s freezing out there, literally, and we’ve about a six-hour hike until we’re out ofthe snow,” Gustaf explained, pointing out yet another layer I should add.
“This is silly,” I moaned, trying to cinch a belt around my middle. I gave up, flingingit back into the wardrobe and slamming the doors, and used a wide sash to hold up my outermostskirt instead. The layers of fabric tangled around my legs and I tried to raise my arms to myhead but my sleeves restricted my arms until I could barely raise them to place a shawl aroundmy shoulders. “Are you satisfied yet?” Gustaf chortled to himself, offering me no help. “It is only because your dresses areso flimsy that you have to do this. But I think you can be done.” I breathed a sigh of relief, the seams at my sides straining to contain my ribcage.
We walked downstairs together and, while I loaded my pockets with a couple crustsof bread, he put out the fire. For the first time since the tower was built the flames were snuffedout and I had to avert my eyes from the smoldering embers. “Where is your rope?” he asked me as he opened the window. I came to stand next to him and looked out as well. “I haven’t any rope.” The viewmade my stomach twist into knots and my skin crawl. I had never truly looked down before.
“You don’t have any rope?” he asked incredulously. “I just assumed…” “What would I need a rope for? Mother climbs up my hair and in through thewindow. I hadn’t any use for a rope.” How were we supposed to get down? Sure Gustaf could usemy braid, but it wasn’t possible for me to as well. I began running a list of possible items I couldfind to make a rope out of when I noticed him staring at the puddle of my hair that had gatheredat my feet. “No, no, no! Definitely not.” “It’s the only way down!”
“There has to be something else we can do! Can’t we…I don’t know…we can use theblankets from my bed or something.” He shook his head. “We’re losing daylight already. You do want to come, don’t you?”I could see that there really was no way around it so I reluctantly offered my braid to him. “Justleave it as long as you can.” He pulled out a small knife and placed the side of his hand about halfway down myback. “Is here alright?”
I gave a short nod and he began to saw through the thick braid. With a final tug itwas severed from my head and fell to the floor with a thud. I cringed and what hair I had leftsprang loose and fell into my eyes. He had it knotted the rope-braid to the windowsill and hanging down the side ofthe tower in an instant. All I could do was stand, stunned, and mourn my loss. It was vain, Iknow, but I really could not remember a time when my hair had been so short. It made my headfeel too light; like I was going to float away. Barely holding back tears, I was led over to the rope-brad and instructed to climbdown it. I did as I was told and, with a final look around the room, I found myself holding on fordear life while suspended in midair.
Then I reached the end of the rope and one by one I lowered my feet onto theground. I sank ankle-deep into the snow and felt the cold breeze playing with my loose hair. Itwas a strange yet wonderful sensation. Gustaf slid down the rope behind me and started walking immediately, calling forme to follow. The snow crunched under my feet as I walked and I could hear the rope-braidhitting the stone tower as it blew in the wind. It was cold, colder than I had ever imagined, but Iloved the sensation of the tiny flakes swirling about, brushing against my skin, and I couldn’t bebothered to look back.
Gustaf grew ever more serious and alert as he trudged on ahead. He concentratedon finding the path to the village and hardly spoke to me except to tell me where to step. Ifollowed along, obeying his instructions and engrossed in each new experience. As I walked I saw birds flitting about the snow-covered branches and heard theirlovely song. I smelled the strong scent of pine trees and felt their sharp needles when I brushedagainst them. And, once we had made it far enough down the mountains, I felt rain. At the towerit had only ever snowed.
As we walked the mountains gave way to hills, then to pastures, then to cottages,and finally to a town. It was different than I had always imagined it. The buildings were closertogether, the noises were louder, and the mud more abundant. We snuck through the alleyways, not coming across any person, and he movedslowly. Cautiously. Before we turned any corners, Gustaf took a careful survey of the next streetand we had to dodge quickly across any wide avenue. “Why are we sneaking?” I asked in a loudwhisper, short of breath and lagging behind.
He held up a hand behind his back and signaled for me to stop. I stomped my footimpetuously, wanting my answer. All I got was a shoe full of mud. Slowly, he leaned around the corner and peeked between the building we werehiding behind and the one next to us. He snapped right back up, his eyes wide with concern.
He pushed me backwards until my shoulders pressed against the stones. “This is myhouse,” he said, speaking so quietly that I could barely make out what he was saying. “I said:we’re here. One of the Dame’s carriages is sitting outside the shop.” “So?” I didn’t care if the ruler of the village herself was shopping inside. I onlywanted to see more. “So you’ll have to wait here, just for a few minutes while I sneak in the back. I don’tknow if word of my prison escape has made its way back yet.”
My feet danced back and forth in the mud, squishing more in between my toes.“Where am I supposed to go? Please don’t leave me all alone!” “It’s okay,” he said in a hushed voice. His lips were barely inches from my face. “Seethe hole in this wall?” He pointed to the hole that had been ripped out of the wall behind my feet.I nodded. “Just crawl through it and wait for me to come back and get you.” “But-” “You’ll be safe; I promise. This house has been empty for years. There’s absolutelynobody inside.”
With that, he ran off to the back door of his house and left me by myself. Withshaky hands, I leaned down to wedge myself through the hole. It required some effort and mysash, holding in many layers of clothing, nearly cut off my breathing for a few moments but Imade it inside.
The building was musty from what I could only imagine was years of abandonment.Rotting boards were nailed over windows that featured jagged, broken panes. The floorboard,soaked from years of exposure to the weather, sagged and squished under my weight. Fromsomewhere in the dark I heard a few rats scurrying and squeaking.
I shuddered in disgust and folded my arms. I planted my feet in one spot, refusing totouch anything. There was a single stool, missing a leg, that I could have sat on but the houserepulsed me. So far, the village was certainly no better than my comfortable, sturdy tower. No, no; this was not what I wanted at all. A dreadful feeling settled into the pit ofmy stomach. I had made a mistake. Life in the village was by no means better than in the tower.Here it was cold and wet and dirty and dangerous.
I heard a door open in the street. A woman called out “I’ll do the very best I can,your highness,” before slamming the door shut. Then the carriage door opened and closed andthe horses began to pull it away. I hoped that meant Gustaf would be coming back to get mesoon.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a rat run across the floor boards and jumped backa few feet. I shuddered and wrung my hands. That was the last straw. I didn’t want to be thereanymore. As soon as he came back I would demand he take me back home. It was going on lateafternoon, but there was a chance we could make it back by nightfall if we increased our pace.
A tap on my shoulder nearly made me jump out of my skin. I screamed aloud andthen clamped my hands over my mouth when I recognized who stood before me. “Why do youkeep startling me like this?!”
“It’s only me!” he said, grabbing my wrists and squeezing them softly. “I’m sorry – Ididn’t mean to sneak up on you. I thought you heard me.” He held my wrists until they stoppedshaking. The words “take me back now” were on the tip of my tongue but they faded away withthe trembling of my fingers. The musty smell, the damp floor, and the squeaking rats faded away.I felt safe once again. His presence calmed me. “The shop’s empty now,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder and letting go of oneof my wrists, “if you want to come in. My mother’s very eager to meet you.” “Alright,” I said in a whisper, pulling my other arm out of his grip. My handsprickled where he had held them. When he turned to climb back through the hole, I shook themto make it stop.
The air was slightly less damp outside and I could feel a perfumed breeze windingthrough my hair. On it floated a few pink petals and the smell of cherry blossoms. The groundwas still muddy and covered in moss, the garden was overtaken by weeds, and a rotting washbucket rested limply by the back door but at least it smelled nice.
He opened the back door and disappeared inside. I came in expecting to see aninterior equally as dilapidated as the exterior but was greeted instead by a warm, welcomingroom entirely free of damp and rats. “My goodness,” the woman standing before me said softly. “Rapunzel, this is my mother, Klara,” Gustaf said curtly. “And we welcome you toour home.”
“Welcome, indeed!” Klara exclaimed, throwing her arms around me. Her blue eyestwinkled and I noticed that she had the same shade of hair as her son, though hers was pulledback and tucked neatly under a veil. “My dear, I could not believe my eyes when I saw Gustafstanding before me and with such a tale! But here you are and I cannot be more pleased to haveyou here.”
“Thank you so very much. I am excited to see Kirschblüte and discover what life islike here.” “Well, my dear, we will be the glad to show you around,” Klara said amiably. “We canstart with the shop. Downstairs is where we work and upstairs is where we live. See over here-”
She stopped mid-gesture when a bell in the next room rang, instantly grabbing theattention of both mother and son. They exchanged a glance and Gustaf nodded, saying “I’ll getit,” before disappearing into another room. Klara draped her arm over my shoulders and guided me towards the stairs. “Isuppose we can save the tour of the shop for a later time. You must be starving!”
I nodded in affirmation as we climbed the stairs together. “I have a bit of stew stillon the stove from lunch,” she said, pointing to a door on the right side of a narrow hall at the topof the stairs. “I was keeping it warm for dinner, but I think you and Gustaf deserve somethingnice and hot after spending all day in the cold.” “Thank you; that would be lovely.” She opened the door and ushered me inside. It was a small bedroom, dominated by alarge four-poster bed. “This is my room, dear. I’ll leave you alone to freshen up while I set outsome stew.”
I thanked her, shutting the door behind her. The house was much warmer thanoutside and I had already begun to overheat. I had to admit, though, that Gustaf ’s plan hadworked so far. I had stayed plenty warm enough in the snow and now I had several things tochoose from to wear. I peeled off layer after layer of dresses, laying them out on the bed andrunning my fingers through my hair. As I untangled the knots and braided it my hands tried to keep going long past theend. Conditioned by a lifetime of having yards and yards of hair, my hands were surprised tofind nothing past my waist.
I chose a dress of deep green and left the others in a neat pile on the bed. Throughthe walls I heard Gustaf coming up the stairs and Klara setting out bowls of food. I took amoment to give my thanks for a safe journey and openhearted hosts before following the soundof lively chatter and scraping utensils to the dining room.
“Ah, Rapunzel,” Klara smiled when she saw me. I nodded in response. “Here you go,dear.” She pointed to a bowl sitting on the table and prompted me to take a seat across from her. I noticed that Gustaf had chosen to stand in the corner, slurping up his soup. Ismiled in his direction but he kept his eyes trained on his bowl.
“Thank you for the meal,” I remarked, taking my first bite. “I offer my complimentsto the chef.” Gustaf scoffed, choking on a spoonful before managing to force it down his throat.“My mother didn’t cook this!”
Throwing him a look, Klara shifted in her seat. “What he means to say is that weshall pass your compliment on to Annemarie and her husband. With all the work around theshop, I haven’t time to tend the hearth as well. We purchase most our meals and it’s a good thing,too; much better than anything I could ever come up with myself !” “Oh, I don’t know how to cook either,” I said, taking another bite. “I’ve tried myhand at a pie or two, but I nearly managed to burn down the tower.”
Klara leaned forward, a serious expression on her face. “Gustaf told me that hefound you way up in a tower in the middle of the snowy mountains. Why I couldn’t believe myears when I heard it! But I want to thank you for taking him in. Thank you for saving his life.” “You’re welcome,” I said, cutting my glance towards Gustaf. He was hunched over,still in the corner, eating as if he was alone in the room. “It was the least I could do. Besides, Ifeel as if I have already been repaid with his offer to show me the village.” “What is it you are hoping to find here, dear?”
I choked on my next spoonful of soup. Her question caught me off-guard and Irealized I didn’t have an answer to give. What was it I had hoped to find? “I’m not exactly sure.But I’ll know it when I find it.” I supposed my real problem would begin only after I foundwhatever I had set off in search of. Deep down I knew that I could never truly go back to thetower; it was just too soon for me to see it yet.
“Well, I wish you all the luck in the world, Rapunzel,” Klara said, patting my hand.“Kirschblüte is a small village. We have all fallen on hard times and don’t have much to offer mostfolks but we do our best.” As she spoke I noticed Gustaf slip out of the room and into thekitchen. I supposed he must have finished already though I still had half my bowl left. “You’ll seewhat I’m talking about tomorrow.” “What’s tomorrow?” “The Spring Festival, the Frühlingsfest. It’s a wonderful sight to behold! People fromthe farthest reaches of the village come to the square where there’s food and dancing and music.And the best part is the cherry trees; all in full blossom and all so delightfully aromatic. Oh, Ican’t even begin to describe it!”
“We usually have a booth at the Festival, but not this year,” Gustaf added, comingback and standing by the table. “I suppose it’s too late to set one up?” “Oh my son,” Klara sighed as she spoke, “always thinking of business. This year, justthis once, why don’t you go out and try to enjoy yourself ?” “I’m just trying to do my job, mother.” While they discussed I took the opportunityto gulp down the rest of my soup.
“Now you have another job to see to,” Klara countered. “Tomorrow you shall takeRapunzel out and show her a nice time. I won’t have you slaving your holiday away as youusually do.” She stood and came to collect my empty dish, punctuating her command with a lookthat ended the debate. “For now why don’t you and Rapunzel start closing up the storefront; andwhile you’re down there you can give her a proper tour as well.” Meeting my gaze, Gustaf jerked his head in the direction of the hall and mumbled,“Let’s go.” I offered my quick thanks to Klara for the meal before scrambling out of my chair andout of the room.
“This is our illustrious printing room,” he said flatly when we both reached thebottom of the stairs. He still seemed withdrawn. “It’s not much to look at, but it’s been in myfamily for generations. And it’s the only printing shop left this side of the mountains.” “It’s wonderful,” I exclaimed breathily, inhaling the scent of fresh ink, parchment,and new books. It smelled much like my tower did. It smelled like home.
He went over to stand by the back door. “Uh, this is where our tour begins.” Hemotioned to a large chest of drawers that stood against the wall behind him. “What’s in it?” “Type pieces. Thousands and thousands of little letters; all sorted intocompartments and ready to be arranged into pages of text.” As Gustaf spoke he grewincreasingly animated and I noticed a brightness in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. In thatmoment I saw and understood his passion for his work. And I envied him. “When the pages arecomposed, I set it into the machine,” he pointed to the large wooden contraption that wascovered by a sheet, “and my devil inks-”
“Your devil?” I interrupted. He laughed genuinely for the first time since we had come to town. “Oh yes, myapprentice: a young boy of eleven called Dirk. I don’t exactly know why printers’ apprentices arecalled devils. People in the village have been doing it since I was apprenticed to my father. I guessit’s sort of a tradition by now.”
“Is he here? May I meet him?” “No, he’s not; he’s visiting his family. I shut down the printing press a couple daysago and put out the story that I was ill in order to cover up my absence. Since there wasn’t anywork for him to do around the shop, Mother thought that a trip home might do him good.” “Does he miss his family often?” “Less and less as time goes on. He’s only been with me for about eight months nowand I have begun to notice an increase in his enthusiasm. A welcome change, I must admit.”
“Well, I should very much like to meet him if I get the opportunity. Perhaps at thefestival tomorrow?” “Yes, we will have to see if he attends,” he said and I could sense his attentionwandering. His eyes moved back to rest on the printing press. “Would you like to see it? I can doa small demonstration if you would like.” The excited light was glowing in his eyes once more.
I felt a thrill at the prospect of seeing the machine in action. I had often wonderedhow exactly my books were made and was about to say an enthusiastic “Yes!” when the ringingof the little bell in the front room interrupted. Gustaf snapped to attention and his passion evaporated in a second. The spell thathad melted away the rest of the world for a few moments was broken. “I’ll be back in a moment,”he said and brushed past me at a hurried pace.
Although he was gone, as was the offer of a demonstration, my curiosity remained.Cautiously, I lifted the corner of the sheet and peeked under.
The printing press was an impressive piece of machinery, about three feet wide andseven feet tall. It was built of sturdy, carved wood and I could see the dull glint of somethingmetallic. Of course I had no idea how to work it, but it looked rather exciting. A strong desire totry it out took hold of me and I found myself hoping that I would be able to before I had toleave.
I let go of the sheet and let it fall back into place when I heard the bell ring. Iturned around to see Gustaf come through the curtain that separated the two rooms. He wascarrying a bundle of loose papers and shaking his head. “What?” I asked.
“It was a young boy from a couple streets over. Wendel. Bane of his sister’sexistence, he is. He just loves to terrorize her, the poor girl, and he’s always breaking her things.This is the third time this month his mother’s made him come in here to have me to fix one ofthe books that he’s managed to tear the cover off of. He’s going to end up spending all of hispocket change on repairs if he’s not careful.” He chuckled to himself and went turned to placethe bundle in a cupboard. “I don’t understand,” I said, toying with the end of my braid. “It’s a broken book,” he spoke slowly as if I was hard of hearing, “that I’m going tofix and–”
“No, not that. I don’t understand why you want to leave this place.” I had seen thejoy that crept into his eyes when he spoke of his work. I could recognize the love for his tradethat shone from his soul and I could not comprehend why he wanted to leave the life he had built. He closed the cupboard door and let his hand rest on the wood. “I never said that Iwanted to.” This time he spoke slowly because his words seemed to cause him pain. “I still don’t understand why you were illegally crossing the mountains justyesterday.”
He hesitated. Finally he turned to face me. “It’s a difficult situation I find myself in.When you spoke of a war yesterday, one that had ravaged the land, you weren’t completelywrong. It was brutal and devastating, only…it ended when I was four and we citizens were onthe losing side. Trade in the village was destroyed and my family has only barely managed tohang on this far.” I swept my arms in wide arcs. “But you have so much!” Much more than I ever had.
“Our population was cut in half by casualties and those who were left soon foundlife unbearable between the heavy taxes and restrictive laws regulating our businesses. Thefarmers were the first to go and without them now there is hardly enough food to go around.Everyone who managed to secure visas before the town gates were closed left immediately. Overthe years even more have snuck out in the dead of night, off to a better life somewhere else. Iwas only trying to do the same.” “So,” I said acridly, “when you were sitting with me last night, expounding on thebeauties and the wonders of the village, you were lying to me? ‘It’s glorious,’ you said. ‘Life isbeautiful there,’ you said! Now you’re telling me that all there is to find here is suffering? I wouldhave been much better off staying in my tower. Mother was right!”
“Your mother lied to you, Rapunzel, not I! I simply offered you the chance to see theworld through your own eyes. But I do apologize for unloading my burdens on to you. It was toomuch.” The tone of his voice dropped from anger to understanding. “I only wanted to show youthat there is sorrow in the world. But there is also happiness. And I want to show you that, too.”
My eyes prickled with tears, but I withheld them. The bell rang, signaling thearrival of another customer. He made an effort to smile. “Come out with me,” he offered, seeming to haveinstantly forgiven and forgotten our short spat. “You haven’t seen the storefront yet.”
I followed, not saying a single word, into the front room. I stayed close at his heels,struggling to reason through the situation. An elderly couple stood in the doorway. When theysaw Gustaf the old man nodded by way of greeting and the old woman threw out her arms for ahug. They paid no attention to me at all. “Gustaf !” the old woman bellowed in a jovial tone. “So good to see you up and aboutagain. We came by yesterday but your mother said you were abed with a cold.” “I am feeling much better now,” he answered, inviting the couple to step up to thecounter while I moved quietly off to the side. “What have you come in for today, Sylvia?”
The old woman began to prattle on about how her granddaughter was soon to bewed and how excited her entire family was. She offered up many details about the style of hergranddaughter’s gown and the flavor of the cake and Gustaf paid close attention, nodding alongthe entire time. “When Susi was just a little girl, no more than seven, I’d say-” “She was eight,” the old man interjected.
“Yes, yes. Thank you, Vester,” the old woman said to her husband. “When she waseight, she got it in to her head that she just had to have her wedding invitations printed in a shopsomeday. ‘Like a book,’ she told us. Well, many years have passed since then but Vester and I stillremember it like it was yesterday and we thought it would be a nice gesture if we were to havethem done for her.” That’s when I saw it. It was written plainly on Sylvia’s face, but happiness was inVester’s stony features as well. I just had to look a little closer, but it was surely there. I saw thejoy that Gustaf had said could be found. This old couple had found joy even amongst the miserythat was life in the village. Somehow both could exist together. And somehow I felt that I hadnever truly experienced either one.
“Now Sylvia,” Gustaf warned. “My printing press hasn’t been running for a fewdays and Dirk is out visiting his mother. It looks to be quite some time before I can get to theinvitations.” Sylvia’s face fell for a second but she composed herself quickly. “No matter. Susi wasgoing to pen them herself with her sister after the festival tomorrow. If there’s not time to havethem printed, I suppose we can find another gift for her.” Gustaf glanced in my direction. “Please,” I mouthed, having caught his eye. With asmall smile and shake of the head, he plucked a piece of paper from the counter and dipped a penin a jar of ink. “Oh…give me the information and I’ll see what I can do.”
He scribbled down Susi’s information quickly and even from across the room I couldsee how excited he had become. The light in his eyes was back. Sylvia hugged him in gratitude even Vester put in his words of thanks before theyleft, promising to be back soon to pick up their order.
Gustaf escorted them to the front door, closing and locking it behind them. Thelight from outside was growing dim; it was getting late. “That was the last customer for the day.And we won’t be open tomorrow because of the festival.” “Thank you for accepting their order,” I said, still hovering in the corner of theroom. “I’m sorry if I pushed you to it; they just looked so sad when you said no.”
“I didn’t say ‘no,’ exactly,” he said, coming to stand next to me. “All I said was that itwould take me a long time to make them without help. But I’ve found a solution.” “What are you going to do?” “Are you busy tonight?” he asked with a sly smile. “Would you care to be myassistant?” My heart leapt with excitement. “Not at all!” I shouted and resisted the urge to flingmy arms around his neck. He was going to teach me how to use the printing press!
As the sun dipped below the horizon and the last rays of light peeked through thewindows, I followed Gustaf back into the work room. He lit candles in every corner and slippedan apron off a peg. “It’s my mother’s,” he said, holding it out so I could slide my arms through. “You canborrow it; she won’t mind.” It was too big - the sides met in the back - but I didn’t care. My mindwas reeling with the prospect of an entertaining evening ahead. And the touch of his fingers as they inadvertently brushed against my back.
I pushed up my sleeves and got right to work. Together we sorted out the wordingof the invitations and the design for the border. He helped me sift through drawer after drawerof type, picking out and arranging spacers and backwards letters into rows. As we worked, Inoticed that he stood very close; closer than we had ever been before. The casual bump of myelbow to his arm or his leg to mine brought a blush to my cheeks.
He was animated in his instruction; passionate and proud of his work. I found hisdemeanor contagious. As I set the rows composed text down into the stone bed of the machine, Ifelt a similar enthusiasm ignite deep within me. I had loved books my entire life, but this wassomething new altogether. Reading was one thing. Creating was another. We worked late into the night and, as the hours wore on, I fell more in love with theshop. I worked tirelessly, evenly applying ink onto the raised letters, twisting the handle with allmy might to press them into the paper, and hanging up the damp invitations to dry .
And in the soft glow of candlelight I came to realize that what I was feeling wasn’tjust for the machine.